Interview with Chris Dorley-Brown

Interview with Chris Dorley-Brown

Chris Dorley-Brown has been photographing the streets and daily life of London’s East End since the early 1980s, and over that thirty-plus years has constructed a compelling document of the evolving plurality of the region, of the rapid and profound process of erasure and reconstruction that has characterised the changes in its physical space, and of the shifting blend of cultures that have come to define its lived experience. His photographic archive traces back to the after-effects of post-war rebuilding, and extends through the Thatcher years, the Blair years and on into the present period of ‘re-generation’ that laid the ground for the extensive makeover of large parts of East London for the 2012 Olympics. Indices of social fragmentation, of divergent or diametrically opposed levels of economic prosperity and opportunity can be discerned across the breath of his thirty years of work, and speak with alarming clarity to the forces driving the fortunes of that region and its inhabitants in this present moment of extraordinary economic misfortune. Chris was kind enough to spend a little time talking about his work, the motivations behind it, its evolution and his sense of how his work interrelates with and speaks to the realities of the area in which it was made.


You’ve been photographing in London’s East End for over thirty years now, primarily doing what we can at least loosely describe as street photography. I’m interested in talking a little about the kind of record of recent history, social and cultural change that you’ve observed, and how much of that you see reflected in the pictures themselves?

For me, photography is a recording, and I am just collecting evidence. In one sense the pictures are very personal as they chart my movements and obsessions, and on the other hand they could be read as rather systematic and standardised. Maybe we can talk about “street photography” later, but my approach is straightforward: I just put the thing or place I want to photograph in the middle of the viewfinder and hit the release, no angles or fancy stuff.

London is really still cleaning up after a war that ended in 1945. One of my first projects was to document the high rise tower blocks in Hackney that had been built in order to provide cheap housing for the working class whose homes had been bombed by the Luftwaffe. Most had been completed by the mid-seventies and when I began the project a decade later they were starting to blow those up, so the bomb sites reappeared and I made images of that cycle. Often they would discover German high explosives in the rubble that had to be disarmed. I was witnessing what seemed to be the end of a failed experiment, or at least a loss of faith in a modernist ideal. It was out of a sense of civic duty to mark the occasion, by making a record just in case nobody else was doing it, and that feeling has just kind of stuck with me, making an archive that had potential as a resource for future historians and researchers.

Right now it’s impossible avoid the 2012 Olympics in this part of the world at the moment. It is a phenomena happening on your doorstep, and it affects everybody, like it or loathe it. It’s really just accelerated what was happening anyway, a shift from manufacturing and fabrication to an economy dominated by retail and financial services, and this is a global issue. But seeing it at a local level in a concentrated area has been breathtaking and frightening for many – basically a new city has emerged in a part of London that was home, work and play to many Londoners, but we were being told constantly that it was just a useless toxic waste ground. But it’s happened, and we will be dealing with its effects for the rest of our lives. So for the past year, and the next year or two that will be my focus, and to that end I am using images taken 15-25 years ago alongside recent images to put it into perspective.

I have adopted a tried and tested method of documenting social developments in Hackney by repeating, precisely, my previous photographs and using juxtaposition in the series Re-Shoots (1983-present). Of course they are evidence of ‘change’, but they are proving to be evidence of other more unexpected things that wasn’t necessarily directly connected with memory. I’m talking about what I call the phenomena of Civic Prevarication relating to how public spaces are often “organised”, through a series of indecisive and half-hearted gestures by both local councils and private developers. This could be the repeated re-dressings of social housing projects in differing colours and claddings, or maybe road markings that completely change several times over ten years as different traffic flow methods are tried out. Urban planning by sporadic social experimentation. My role is to keep an eye on things; it’s a psyco-geographer’s paradise!

You’ve alternated between architectural studies, impromptu street photographs, portraits and tableaux as your work has evolved, but I think that regardless of the various formal iterations, your photographs illustrate or at the least allude to a very interesting intersection of differing histories, cultures and economic phenomena in a fairly well demarcated region of London. I see indices of gentrification, of changing religious and ethnic diversity, of varying economic fortunes all nested within your pictures. Was this a deliberate strategy, something that developed over time, or am I reading more into the pictures than I should in your opinion?

Well I think you are right about illustration and allusion. They may look coherent when arranged into themes on a website, but many of these images were made in my spare time over a long period, usually when I sensed a picture was overdue to be made, sometimes a reaction to a news story about a particular place, or a friend would say “have you seen what they are doing down at……” But yes, nearly always it was an issue such as those you mention. London is kind of defined as a city by its diversity, and it played that card in the Olympic bidding process, talking about legacy, using imagery of youth, regeneration, integration and hope. It’s how London now sees itself, in terms of class difference. East London especially. This was repeated and re-inforced by the 2012 Opening Ceremony: chaotic, ironic and funny but ultimately optimistic. It’s an illusion, but quite subversive if you choose to read it that way. On the night I saw quite a few people who were very “anti-Olympics” seduced by the sheer spectacle of it all, and the camaraderie that the “big event” can induce.

When I started photographing in London, I was aware that I was witnessing the tail end of an era that had begun in the 19th century, essentially an industrial and manufacturing revolution. The docks had just closed and really only the rag trade was a visible London industry, but the old buildings did remain and many were being inhabited by artists and photographers because they were relatively cheap, large and flexible in terms of potential, so it was natural to photograph this phenomena. It seemed to be a world that was fragile and vulnerable, something worth preserving if only by making a photograph.

Essentially London is in constant flux; it’s like a huge experiment in social equilibrium, but it is never resolved. That’s why young folks flock here to try things out that they could never get away with at home. The urban landscape is perpetually being re-arranged and re-ordered, and if you study your history you discover it occurs in cycles, peaks and troughs. Now is like the 1930s, economic depression and evident poverty juxtaposed with ostentatious wealth in the city, and obsessions with materialism, physical fitness, with radical politics on all sides of the spectrum; the growth in stadia and Grand projects, public concern with personal freedom and liberty.

The 1980s were also defined by class attitudes. In 1988 I undertook a commission in a hospital in Hackney, that highlighted the contrast between the patient and professional healthcare specialists, not a conflict but a situation where you had people surrendering their bodies to medicine and new technology, and it reminded me of religious surrender as depicted in the history of painting.

I was in a very privileged situation for an artist, being in the middle of life and death situations but carrying a camera, in a way the hospital was great metaphor for the city and its underprivileged class, juxtaposed against the professional class. It was around the time that the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had declared “there is no such thing as society”. It was an mighty insult to anyone with an iota of conscience or compassion. So the pictures were made as a response to that, not wholly successfully, but a couple have stood the test of time

Around 1992 I moved out of London, quit my darkroom and studio and consequently stopped photographing. I started getting involved in digital technology, initially as a way of putting film and sounds together. It was like going back to school, very collaborative and sociable times. I think the implications of digital photography were becoming evident: the potential for creating a new kind of image, but it was still a ways away. Returning to London after six years, I started photographing again, and what I did initially was to return to where I had made pictures before and redo them, very faithfully, recreating the picture, the same viewpoint, time of day, year etc. Seeing the two images side by side, juxtaposed, was a revelation. I could use them as beginnings and endings but the narrative centre was ambiguous, and open to interpretation.

I was interested in the social change that the images showed. It was evidence, as writer Stewart Home later put it in his essay The Image has Cracked of a “horrendous crime scene”. So those have become an ongoing document of pairs and triptychs. Re-Shoots is the current title but I keep changing it. I used to look at the publications that appeared in the 1970s and 80s, kind of “now and again” type books. They were usually aimed at the sentimental jugular, but nearly always poorly executed. The “before” images looked better because they were accessing a huge library resource, but the “after” images were usually done hastily by a single photographer on 35mm at best, and poorly printed with little attention to detail. I was disappointed by them, but loved the idea that you could could achieve an equivalent image but remove the sentimental element from the equation, firstly recreating pictures with a 1-15 year gap, and then trying them with smaller intervals.

In some ways these were more interesting, they threw up all sorts of evidence of civic prevarication. There was an absurdity to them in a performative sense, in that I had to literally adopt the precise physical stance to get the accuracy. Also, I noticed that I had forgotten the precise circumstances of why I took the original, so they might as well have been somebody else’s pictures. And of course I didn’t have to worry about composition, my younger self had made that decision for me, and this produced compositions that were unusual and refreshing. So the pictures were historical but contemporary at the same time, and this was liberating but defined genre in some ways. To answer your question more directly, I have to say that there was no deliberate strategy, the pictures themselves were dictating the direction and I was happy with that. I just followed their instructions. The terrain is specific though, so they end up being a document about a place.

Can you talk a little about the formal evolution of your photography from the late 1980s to today, about the way you transitioned to working in digital from film, but also about the logic behind beginning to work in composite tableaux? Were you looking for a pictorial form that gave you the scope to make more comprehensive or inclusive photographs? What were the particular motivations and how did you wind up working as you do now?

The composites were started in the early eighties, and started out being a way to achieve a certain quality with colour neg without using plate cameras. The results were crude and unsatisfactory collages of prints. I then simply had to wait a decade or so for someone to invent the Mac and Photoshop so I could stitch those suckers together. Working with non-film cameras from about 2003 made the edges of the frame disappear for me; photography became information gathering, sampling, compositing. You put the edges in later, making a picture was suddenly 10% photographing 90% processing and editing, cropping and composition were decisions made in a more contemplative environment, and this suited me well. I started to work more like a painter or a designer… A single image now takes a week to put together rather than 1/60th of a second, but I am still firmly in the documentary camp. These pictures are not fantasies, they are the truth!

My brother had made an off-the-cuff remark about why there were no people in my pictures – he is also a photographer, by the way – and this started me thinking about approaching a more all-encompassing image: formal and architectural in structure, but with elements of spontaneous reaction to events. A genre mixing thing. I was able to make a connection between Jeff Wall, Helen Levitt, Fred Herzog and Berenice Abbott, but also Julius Shulman and hyper-realists such as Ralph Goings, Richard Estes and Robert Bechtle. But the challenge was how to make that seemingly American sensibility of light and space work in the confines of London, with its cold light and cramped spaces.

The compositing gave me the ability to play with ideas within the space of the picture, most importantly it gave me the ability to give each individual time and space to breathe in, so that each person seems more powerful and more “significant”. Paul Graham once said somewhere in an interview that the people in his pictures were “ciphers”; I liked that idea, that people in “street” photographs are kind of actors who play their role as members of the human race, that their specific identity is not important. It was satisfying to be able to combine disciplines of architecture and environmental photography that I had learnt along the way, but remain within the documentary tradition. Also it challenged Cartier Bresson’s dictum regarding the decisive moment. Pictures could now have many of those. It was a happy coincidence that, at that very moment, I was starting to think about my family history and my East End ancestry. That gave me the context to start on the The Corners (2005-present) project, which really was about immigration, movement, social mobility within the city. The locations were very personal in terms of my family history, and I realised that not much had changed really in two centuries of Londoners and how they inhabit social (civic) space.

Latterly there has been a resurgence interest in photographic process, driven obviously in part by the advent and normalisation of digital technology in photography (Luc Delahaye, Loretta Lux etc) and also driven by the success of that work in the commercial world (Jeff Wall, Paul Graham et al). I’m interested in how you yourself see these developments, which photographers you feel have been particularly successful in incorporating digital techniques into their work, and also how you see these questions in the context of street photography in particular?

It will be interesting to see, in the next few years, if the more adventurous types of digital photography start to become accepted as journalism and documentary reportage. There is still a great reluctance within the print / journalism industry as well as museums and public collections of documentary photography to embrace the real possibilities of a medium which is still really in its infancy.

The current resurgence in street photography is driven by conservative tendencies, I feel; driven by a desire to return to the “roots – always a dangerous sign!  I am encouraged though, by the trend of archives and collections of photographs, originally created as highly staged publicity images but now being re-purposed as valid documents of social history, most notably in the John Hinde Postcard series about British holiday camps.

You mentioned Loretta Lux, a good example of photography performing a function that painting has traditionally done; also I am thinking of Beate Gutschow & Filip Dujardin who are fabricating completely imaginary landscapes and architecture from photographic sources, and Peter Funch who is time-compressing events into single “street photography” images.

Do you feel that there are areas of your work that have been under-exploited, or that some of your recent work has opened up new possibilities that you might like to explore?

Under-exploited by me or others? I honestly have no idea. I have been experimenting with differing approaches and techniques over the years and I guess I have rejected some ideas at various points because I feel that other photographers are covering some territories and approaches with a greater degree of success, so I have moved on, trying to find a language that is more personal.

I mean, I have not made any portraits for some years as I felt I had nothing new to say about that. Also there has been times when I have not made photographs at all. It wasn’t really as a result of disillusionment with the medium, but I was curious about other modes of expression, so I took other jobs: sound design for radio, film production and archival research to name a few, but in the last seven years or so I have committed to photography, and I think the reasons for that are about what is happening around me, the developments in east London and also the potential opened up in the medium. Photography now seems to be a fantastic platform to develop new forms in visual narrative, particularly in the area of compressing multiple events into a single and succinct image.

Setting your work to one side, are there any developments, forthcoming exhibitions or bodies of work that you’re particularly keen to see or get hold of in the wider world of photography?

There is some great photography around at the moment and much of it has come to my attention via social networking. Some great collections that are emerging on Flickr for instance, some, by amateurs who have been quietly working away in relative anonymity, but can now release substantial and coherent collections on specific themes. Much of this would never surface in the mainstream publishing world or art / gallery scene.

I  love seeing a collection of family photos that come to light because a son or daughter has taken the trouble to scan a couple of hundred negatives from a box in the attic, and then mediate them with a personal perspective.

Photographers seem to be more sociable than they used to be. I put this down to the fact that we are not spending days locked away in a darkroom cutting ourselves off from friends and family. The audience for our work is now largely online, and this means some effort is put into cultivating groups, get-togethers and small publications.

Artist(s): Medium: chris[at] Site:

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